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CD Reviews:
Picking the 12 Discs of Christmas, 2011
 

By GARY GRAFF
for Journal Register Newspapers

» See more SOUND CHECK

Christmas is supposed to be a time to say I love you -- and all sorts of other seasonal salutation.

Or a time to sing them.

The holiday season puts a different kind of spirit into the music industry as well. Not only are artists and record companies rubbing their hands together in anticipation of big fourth-quarter sales, but there's an onslaught of special, season-specific albums by big names -- this year including Justin Bieber, Michael Buble, Carole King and the Muppets. Radio stations turn their programming over to holiday songs, sometimes starting at Halloween, and a slew of TV specials make use of performers looking to hawk their Yuletide releases.

Sorting through all of it is a chore, of course; after all, how many versions of "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night" or "All I Want For Christmas is You" do you really need? With that in mind, we've done the elves' work and sorted through this year's releases to come up with our annual 12 Discs of Christmas.

So put 'em on and deck the halls -- and leave a little room on your shelf for the best from next year's batch.

Justin Bieber, "Under the Mistletoe (Island): Sure to please the tweens gathered 'round the tree, this is one of two Christmas albums this season to top the Billboard 200 chart and also shows a slightly more mature Biebs bopping his way through duets with Mariah Carey ("All I Want For Christmas is You (SuperFestive!)"), the Band Perry ("Home This Christmas") and Busta Rhymes ("Drummer Boy"), as well as the originals "The Only Thing I Ever Get For Christmas" and "Mistletoe." It's as inevitable as an ugly sweater, do succumb -- if only for the kids.

Michael Buble, "Christmas" (143/Reprise): This year's other chart-topper follows the Canadian crooner's "Let It Snow" EP in 2003, re-working some of those songs and adding a slew of others -- including "Cold December Night," which Buble co-wrote. There are also teamings with Shania Twain ("White Christmas") and the Puppini Sisters ("Jingle Bells"), as well as Mexican singer Thalia on a medley of "Mis Deseos" and "Feliz Navidad."

The Celts, "Christmas With the Celts" (Celtic Isle): What's the season without a little Celtic accent? This troupe, led by Nashville-based frontman Rick Blair, steps to the fore on the soundtrack to its new PBS special, with guests such as Altan's Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and "Riverdance"/"Lord of the Dance" piper Ivan Goff and a repertoire from the heart of the Emerald Isle.

Chicago, "O Christmas Tree" (Chicago Records): The veteran pop-rock heroes crank up the trademark brass, a set of holiday favorites produced by the iconic Phil Ramone. Dolly Parton joins the group for Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmas Time," while America and Detroit native BeBe Winans lend harmonies to "I Saw Three Ships" and "Merry Christmas Darling," respectively, and guitar hero Steve cropper wails on the new tune "Rockin' and Rollin' on Christmas Day."

Carole King, "A Holiday Carole" (Rockingale/Hear Music): King tapped her daughter, Louise Goffin to produce this 12-song set, and she in turn gave her mother three new songs -- "Christmas Paradise," "Christmas in the Air" and "New Year's Day," as well as a new arrangement of "Chanukah Prayer." And kudos for off-the-beaten-path selections such as Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" and the Stax tune "Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday."

Michel Legrand, "Noel! Noel!! Noel!!!"(Verve): The French composer and artist, best known for his film scores and jazz recordings, gathers an impressive group of helpers for this musical workshop, including Rufus Wainwright, Imelda May, Jamie Cullum, Carla Bruni, Madelein Peyroux -- and a surprisingly reverent Iggy Pop on "The Little Drummer Boy."

The Muppets, "Muppets: Green & Red Christmas" (Walt Disney): Charmed by the new Muppets movie and already worn through its soundtrack? Check out this expanded edition of the puppet collective's 2006 holiday album, which adds two new songs to an already enjoyable mix.

Mark O' Connor, "An Appalachian Christmas" (OMAC): Violinist and composer O'Connor has been one of America's most consistently daring recording artists, straying far from his bluegrass roots with always worthwhile results. It's no different on his first holiday outing, which is loaded with guests -- James Taylor, Alison Krauss, Yo-Yo Ma, Jane Monheit, Renee Fleming and more -- and runs a gamut from the usual staples to a rendition of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

Season's Greetings: A Jersey Boys Christmas" (Rhino): A variety of "Jersey Boys" cast members -- from Broadway, Las Vegas, London, Australia and the national touring company -- bring their rich and lively harmonies to the Yule repertoire, overseen by the Four Seasons' Bob Guadio. Eight of 'em team up for "Auld Lang Syne," while Tony Award winner John Lloyd Young stands out on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and a medley of Santa songs.

She & Him, "A Very She & Him Christmas" (Merge): Zoey Deschanel's split from Death Cab For Cutie's Ben Gibbard did not dampen the spirit of this collection. The "New Girl" star (She) and M. Ward (Him) cast a wide stylistic net on this set of favorites, from standards to pop fare such as Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick."

Various Artists, "This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 2" (Brushfire): A pair of Jack Johnson songs, including the original "In the Morning," highlight another engaging exercise by the Brushfire gang, which also includes G. Love, Rogue Wave, ALO, Matt Costa, Detroit native Money Mark and others. Take particular note of The Band's "Christmas Must Be Tonight," done by the Bahamas.

Various Artists, "The Sing Off: Songs of the Season" (Epic): You can almost see these contestants from the NBC show's second season standing around a fiery barrel singing these standards a capella -- albeit with a few vocal twists and turns. First-season champs Committed offer up "Jingle Bells" as a bonus track.

And if there's still room for some more music in your seasonal stocking, you can also consider: Paul Anka, "Songs of December" (Decca); Tony Bennett, "The Classic Christmas Album" (Columbia/Legacy); Jim Brickman, "All is Calm" (Someset Entertainment); David Crowder Band, "Oh For Joy" (EMI); Tommy Emmanuel, "All I Want For Christmas" (Favored Nations); Glee Cast, "Glee: The Music, The Christmas Album Volume 2" (Columbia); Joey + Rory, "Farmhouse Christmas" (Sugar Hill); Dave Koz, "Ultimate Christmas" (Capitol); Kutless, "This is Christmas" (Bec); Little River Band, "A Little River Band Christmas"; Mannheim Steamroller, "Christmas Symphony" (American Gramaphone); Dean Martin, "My Kind of Christmas" (UMe); Joey McIntyre, "Come Home For Christmas" (iTunes); My Morning Jacket, "iTunes Session" (iTunes); Frank Sinatra, "A Jolly Christmas From Frank Sinatra" (Capitol); tobyMac, "Christmas in Diverse City" (EMI); Benjamin Utecht, "Christmas Hope" (Big Machine); Kenny Vance, "Mr. Santa" (La Plano); Scott Weiland, "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" (Atco); Matthew West, "The Heart of Christmas" (EMI)

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff

 



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